The Cartography of Cultural Tension: Boston Public Library exhibit, “Torn in Two,” casts new look at the Civil War

Panoramic view of the Gettysburg battlefield

Panoramic view of the Gettysburg battlefield, 1866. Image courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library.

It’s surprising to think that cultural tension can be mapped: that economic differences and opposing visions for the future can be detected on a flat piece of paper. Yet that is precisely what the Boston Public Library’s exhibition Torn in Two: The 150th Anniversary of the Civil War demonstrates. Showcasing maps from the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, the exhibit ion examines the relationship between conflict and geography during the American Civil War.

The first of the exhibition’s three sections, “Rising Tensions,” interprets the geographic and demographic differences that contributed to the first shots at Fort Sumner in 1861. Maps depicting the U.S. in the 1850s reveal the incongruous settlement patterns that belie the cultural incompatibility between the North and South. The dense conglomeration of cities, roads, and railways in the North is jarringly different from the spacious South, whose agricultural economy depended more upon the Mississippi River than on trains. Indeed, the pre-war maps of the South have a feudal quality, as plots of land are labeled and color-coded according to family ownership rather than administrative township. The section also showcases an interesting map charting the concentration of slave populations by township in the South. Apparently, Abraham Lincoln also found it fascinating, and used it to link emancipation policies with military operations.

With maps of the Western territories from the 1850s, the exhibition makes us consider what was at stake for Americans in the years before the Civil War. The country was undoubtedly expanding after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 allowed settlers to decide on slavery’s legality by popular vote.  Whose lifestyle would prevail in the new territories? Which region’s economic and moral values would dominate as the United States fulfilled its manifest destiny? One map of “the territories whose fate has yet to be decided,” illustrates the geographic and political scale of these questions. The North in blue, the South in red, the West in neutral white, one wonders what color will ultimately dye the vast, virgin West.

Panoramic view of the Gettysburg battlefiled.

Detail - Panoramic view of the Gettysburg battlefiled, 1866. Image courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library.

The second section, “Nation in Conflict” addresses how cartography functioned during the war, both in terms of military tactics and popular engagement.  Notably, most maps displayed in this section were published in the North. While the Boston exhibit is perhaps biased towards Bostonian maps (Boston and New York were also major publishing hubs), it’s true that in the 1860s, maps of Dixie were in high demand. The North, on the offensive, was at a tactical disadvantage. Neither politicians nor the general public knew much about Southern geography, and were thus hungry for more information. The exhibition asserts that the Civil War (not Vietnam!) was the first “Living Room War”, for even in an era predating living rooms, the media allowed the public to stay abreast of the action. Indeed, newspapers published over 2,000 maps and diagrams throughout the course of the war, more than they’d ever published before.  The increased interest and political urgency led to great improvements in cartography during the Civil War.

The final section of the exhibition examines how memory is recorded in maps. Focusing on the decisive battle of Gettysburg, we are asked how our “common visual experience” arose from incongruous recollections of the conflict. We learn how technological advances, the advent of photography, and the federal government’s increasing power influenced cartography, and finally, we consider how slave narratives have helped modern historians map the Underground Railroad.

With its wealth of documents and textual guides, the Torn in Two exhibition is valuable for cartography and history enthusiasts alike. In fact, it’s valuable for anyone who has ever considered what unifies the United States, or who has ever questioned the permanence and authority of the seemingly static map.  Can a map unite or divide a nation? Can it record the hopes and fears of a people? Can it mandate our collective memory? If you want to jog your brain down the roads these questions lead to, through the tangles of war, race, and nationalism, the exhibition continues at the Boston Public Library through 2011. But beware: these roads, and these answers, are as yet uncharted territory.      -by Meghan O’Reilly

Torn in Two: The 150th Anniversary of the Civil War
The Boston Public Library
Changing Exhibits Room

May – December 2011
Monday – Thursday: 9am-9pm; Friday & Saturday: 9am-5pm;
Closed Sunday

Central Library
700 Boylston St.
Boston, MA 02116


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